Sunday, December 30, 2012

From Pollyanna to Les Miserables--movies can MOVE us.

Great movies are far and few between, but when you’ve seen one, you know it. The first time I was blown away by the big screen was in the first grade at Sharon Elementary School in Orem, Utah. The screen came out of the ceiling and I sat on the first row on a hard wooden chair. It was there I fell in love with Haley Mills as Pollyanna. But even then as young as I was, the movie stirred a sense of wanting to be a little nicer, if even a little bit. Movies can do that.

The next movie I remember having a profound effect on  me was when I was only nine or ten years old. The move was “Shenandoah” with Jimmy Stewart. Nearly every Saturday I got to go to the Scera Movie Theatre, a grand building and see a movie, the way they were meant to be experienced. Everything from Disney, to musicals, John Wayne westerns, Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, and epics like Lawrence of Arabia. My parents usually dropped me off with friends and we often walked home if it was good weather. The day I saw Shenandoah I just sat there afterward, numb with grief and the stirring that I might not ever be the same—that terrible tragedies happen and people can die. Jimmy Stewart became my favorite actor from the day on. 

When I saw “The Diary of Anne Frank” the first time, my dad had to explain to me that there would be no uniformed men pounding on our door and dragging us to prison camp, still I worried that it could happen, I hoped that Dad would build a hiding place behind our bookcase in the living room—just in case.

The first time I saw The Sound of Music, my friend Geri and I thought it was fantastic. We ran home singing the songs and when we got home, my mom wondered why we'd gotten home so early, the movie wasn’t even out yet. It was then, she told us must've left in the middle of the show—during the intermission. Still I saw enough of the movie, that I wanted to be a nun. I’m not sure I understood the difficulty of becoming a nun if you’re a Mormon. When I saw “Born Free” I wanted to raise lions in the wild. When I saw Oliver, I wanted to be a pick-pocket and live on the streets of London, but then it also made me want to be as kind as the woman in the red dress who rescues Oliver and is killed because of it. A good movie can change how we think.

One of the most moving films of my life, I saw at thirteen in an amazing theatre in Salt Lake. My dad was known for his thriftiness, yet he splurged and took us to see “Fiddler on the Roof” even before it came to Scera theatre in Orem. He wanted us to see it in seats that rocked comfortably, with surround stereo sound and a curved screen so that we could not just see the movie, but experience it. We did. Not only did I wish to be Jewish, I was spiritually uplifted. This is one movie that although it’s beautiful on television, the experience never matches that first time seeing it the way a movie like that should be watched, felt, heard, and absorbed.

Seeing “Les Miserables” was like that for me. It was spiritual—more spiritual that the finest sermon I’ve even heard. The theatre was not like the theatre my father took us to as a family, but it was still a big screen and at the end when the credits rolled, the audience clapped. I left with the desire to make 2013 a better year than 2012 was for me personally—to be just a little bit more like Jean Valjean. Earlier I made Christmas cards for my family that quoted an unknown author and was later made popular in the Mormon church by Pres. Hunter: "This Christmas, mend a quarrel. Seek out a forgotten friend. Dismiss suspicion and replace it with trust. Write a letter. Give a soft answer. Encourage youth. Manifest your loyalty in word and deed. Keep a promise. Forgo a grudge. Forgive an enemy. Apologize. Try to understand. Examine your demands on others. Think first of someone else. Be kind. Be gentle. Laugh a little more. Express your gratitude. Welcome a stranger. Gladden the heart of a child. Take pleasure in the beauty and wonder of the earth. Speak your love and then speak it again." Experiencing “Les Miserables” made me want to take this in and do a little better. I’ll start with forgoing a grudge.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Why I Wore Pants to Church Today since no one asked...

The first outfit I wore during Sacrament meeting.  Because we attended another ward  we had a break between meetings. 

My Sunday School and R.S. outfit. (no one even stared at me.)
I was pretty ambivalent about Stephanie Lauritzen's call to wear pants in support of gender equality. But something changed when I started to read all the negative comments to Stephanie's Face Book event. It wasn't the "those women should be shot in the face" comment from a BYU student that put me over the edge, it was the comment from someone named Cheryl who said, "if some women have a problem wearing a skirt to church, they should just stay home." She had time to re-think that extremely judgmental, less than empathetic comment, but she reiterated it again. Fill in the blank and see it for what it is. If someone has a problem, no matter what it is, that isn't fitting with the typical Mormon, they should just stay home. Stay home, is not the admonition from our Savior. "Come unto me, all  ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give ye rest." Brigham Young didn't tell folks to stay home either, he said that our "chapels should smell like a tavern on Sunday morning." And of course there's the idea that the church isn't a showplace for the perfect, but a hospital for sinners--which includes all of us. But then wearing pants isn't a sin at all. It's not even church policy for women to wear a skirt, rather it's a pretty strong cultural norm. So once I read Cheryl's over-the-top judgmental comment, I knew that I had to wear pants, at least for a day.

Clear back when I attended USU, over thirty years ago I lived on Darwin Avenue. I met a guy named Rich. Rich was a returned missionary: outgoing, funny, and faithful in the church. He was everyone's friend. About ten years ago, Mick and I ran into Rich and his wife. In the conversation, he asked if he'd ever told us why he'd gotten active in church. We told him he hadn't and he told this story. Remember this was the 70's."I was a freshman. I came to USU and moved in with a bunch of guys I didn't know. They were clean cut returned missionaries for the most part. When sunday rolled around, they tried to get me to go to church and I told them, no way. They pushed and finally I relented on one condition and that was that I would go just the way I was: hair to my shoulders, wearing overallls, barefoot and without a shirt, that's not a white shirt--it's not a shirt--period. Then, if one person said anything to me about my appearance, I'd never go back again. They persuaded me to at least put  a shirt on under my overalls, so I put on a T-shirt. But I still went barefoot and strolled in and sat on the front row. No one said a thing about my appearance and I kept going." Rich was a great guy, fantastic father, husband, and teacher. He died in a tragic accident shortly after he told us this story, leaving behind his wife and children. I am grateful that no one said to Rich, if you have a problem putting on a white shirt and tie--just stay home. So for Rich, I wore pants today.

When we a were young married couple with our first baby, I was called into the Young Women's (for the first time) as a counselor and advisor. I loved it and still to this day run into some of the fantastic women I taught. I'll never forget a question from one of those girls. I was dropping her off at her house after an activity and she said, "Women aren't as important as men in the church, are they?" I was shocked. I didn't feel that way. "No, that's not true. Women are every bit as important as men." "Well, all the leaders are men. When they have general conference, it's all men up there." I don't remember what I said after that because I didn't have an answer, not a good one. So for Katie* I wore pants today.

My son Trevor married Joanna, a beautiful, compassionate and outgoing woman. After they had their first baby and Trevor started a teaching job in Colorado, they saw a young woman struggling to cross the road. She was carrying a toddler in a car seat and pulling another little boy by the hand. Traffic was backing up. I can see how hard that might have been. My daughter-in-law pulled over to the shoulder, jumped out and helped the woman and her children cross the road. Then,  told her to wait, that she'd be back. She then dropped my son and the baby off so there would be room in their tiny car for the woman and her two children. Joanna went back for them and got them where they were going. Joanna found out who she was, where she lived, and befriended the woman who I'll call Tamra*, and then introduced the gospel to her. Tamra, a young African-American, single mother joined the church. She had no car to drive, no dress to wear, but made the effort to attend church--in pants. It's nice that no one in Tamra's branch made her feel unwelcome because of the way she was dressed. For Tamra and all those like her, I wore pants to church today.

My mother-in-law was before her time. In the 40's she left the small town of Garland, Utah and went to arguably one of the most liberal, but prestigious schools in the nation--University of California in Berkeley. After graduation, she taught school, then married a rancher and helped support the family. When he had to take early retirement due to a disability, she became THE provider for the family. Not only was she a good mother to my husband and his siblings, she taught him by her example qualities of a truly equal woman. She died earlier this year. I wore her blouse today in her honor. For Ruth, a feminist before her time, I wore pants today.

*not real name

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sincere Compliments can Shape Us

My granddaughter is a spirited and smart blond four-year-old. Recently she was visiting her cousins. Her cousins have a tradition that whoever says the family prayer receives compliments from the rest of the family. Darling granddaughter said the prayer so the others got to say what nice things they noticed about her. My daughter-in-law told me that as she was tucking her in for the night, her daughter was beaming. “Mommy, when everyone said all those things about me, it made me feel really happy.”

It’s also something she’s likely to remember. When we look back on our lives we see positives and negatives. Those are what stand out. Someday I’ll talk about the negative and the impact it has on us, but today I’ll talk about the positives, the compliments, the kind words that can not only make us feel happy, but can shape who we become.

I grew up in the shadows of beautiful Mount Timpanogas in Orem, Utah. Way back then there was an annual hike up the mountain for anyone who wanted to participate. Thousands each summer ascended the mountain. When I was four, the same age my granddaughter is now, my family joined the hike.  I remember the immensity of the mountain, crossing a snowfield holding my mom’s hand, and my mom and dad telling everyone later that I was such a good hiker I must be part mountain goat,

When I was six and in the first grade, my teacher Mrs. Dowdle commented to the whole class that I was a good reader. When I was in second grade, my teacher Mrs. Meservy chose me and a friend to draw a huge Thanksgiving mural in the back of the room, all by ourselves. In fifth grade, my teacher Mr. Atkinson read aloud a story I wrote to the class.

These early compliments shaped the person I am today. I am a hiker, a reader, an artist, and a writer. I wonder what might have happened had these influential adults not noticed any early talents. These things that I did as a child were not just things, they weren’t just abilities, they are who I am.

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching. What I once felt sure about, I no longer feel so sure about. The very foundation of my belief system has crumbled. What once gave comfort fails me. A few weeks ago I wrote a post about “Listening to the Doubts…” Many of my Facebook friends and blog readers complimented that piece. It really made me feel happy, just like my little granddaughter said.  To know that an experience I had with my daughter resonated with so many of you feels me with joy. It opened some dialogue with some family and friends that I haven’t talked to in years. Some total strangers responded with gratitude. About this same time, I had an experience in my ward where I shared a less that orthodox testimony about my doubts. (This is a more-complex version.) It flowed from my heart. Many of the people in my newer community responded with an outpouring of understanding and even love. They complimented my honesty in sharing something that many felt, but didn’t dare say.

Four and a half years ago we moved three miles from a beautiful part of Cache Valley to an even more beautiful part of Cache Valley.  And even though I love it here and have made new friends, I so miss my old ward and the friends that were a part of my weekly life. My old friends are meeting in the our building on Sundays until their new chapel is built. And today I ran into some of those old friends. One couple complimented the piece “Listening to the Doubts…” And said how much they loved it. The wife hugged me and said she missed me. Then another couple, good friends for years hugged me and told me how much they missed me. Another good friend grabbed me and hugged me. I left in tears.

We are a community. All of us. We learn from each other and we grow by sharing our experiences with each other. Those who responded with gratitude for what a wrote a few weeks ago, and for those who complimented my less-than-orthodox testimony, I thank you. So often, we hold back. We don’t say the one thing someone may need to hear. I have a friend who is a great giver of compliments. He’s a natural Dale Carnegie. He told me once that if you think something nice about someone, you should tell them. He often calls someone up, just to tell them something he noticed about them. I’m not a natural nurturer. I am reserved and less-than-demonstrative, but I will forever love and defend the person who gives me a sincere compliment. I think we are all pretty much the same in that regard. One of the friends I saw in the church hallway today is observant. He notices the tiniest details about the people around him. He and his wife gave me a pair of hiking socks for my birthday this year because they remembered me telling them how much I love a good pair of socks. They complimented me by remembering and noticing and then following through.

A couple of weeks ago our home-teacher came over and said, “I know you must get tired of hearing this, but I loved your testimony.” No, believe it or not I don’t get tired of hearing it. I get tired of not hearing it.  Does kindness ever get old? Does hearing a sincere compliment ever get tiring? Perhaps to some. But I think we ought to err on the side of complimenting anyway. I know I have so much to learn. I know there are so many times that I have failed to notice and have failed to be kind. One of my favorite lines from a movie was from the old James Stewart movie Harvey “ ‘Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, "In this world, Elwood, you must be" - she always called me Elwood - "In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant." Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”’ I do wish I was smarter, and I'm going to keep working at it, keep studying, and doing. I’m also going to have to work on giving compliments. I am going to work on being “oh so pleasant.” It’s not going to be easy. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Relying on the kindness of strangers

In a Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois said, "I have always relied on the kindness of strangers." I think all of us at times have relied on the kindness of strangers. Memories flood my mind as I type this out, mostly about people who stopped to help me when I was stranded, before cell phones when we could call a friend or family member. When my friend, Rosanna and I, traveled through Europe we definitely relied on the kindness of strangers many times. We had traveled with a tour group for a month and then we were on our own. We said goodbye to the group in London and felt terribly lonely as their bus drove away. One other new friend we made from the tour JeanAnn was with us. I was the oldest of the three at 20, but had never traveled east of Denver until this trip. I was scared most of the time, because I hated to talk to strangers--still do. Rosanna and JeanAnn were better at it. All three of us really wanted to see Scotland. I think I wanted to go there because  Thayne was a Scottish name. We road the buses along the country and were mesmerized by the rolling green, a green so intense I knew I'd never seen anything like it in nature. We loved the cows! They looked boxier than those we were accustomed to, Picasso cows we dubbed them. JeanAnn was an art history major and I was an art major, so it worked for us. Rosanna wasn't even out of high school yet.

By the time we got into Edinburgh it was a downpour. The rain that had made the hills so intensely green, was also unlike any rain we'd experienced in the dry Utah desert. We really had no idea where we were going to go. JeanAnn had a package with an address on it. She had promised to deliver the package for a friend to the mission home for a missionary. In the pouring rain we found the mission home, which ended up being where the LDS mission president lived with his wife. We knocked on the backdoor of the stately manor and a woman led us, bedraggled and forlorn, through what could only be described as the kind of kitchen you see in the English PBS mini-series, or in this case Scottish. We were led into a lovely living room. Eventually the mission president himself and his gracious wife greeted us. Yes they would see that the missionary got the package, but they wondered where we were staying and wanted to know every detail of our travels. They were parents of girls about our age and were very concerned.  When they found out that we didn't have a place yet, the mission president called a little bed and breakfast and had a missionary drive us over. Then he made sure we were picked up for dinner the next afternoon where we ate with the mission president, his very gracious wife, and two bewildered missionaries. I found out later that the missionaries were uncomfortable with this display of generosity toward young women their own age and that the previous mission president was quite unlike this jovial man. The president told us he would want someone looking out for his daughter if she were traveling in foreign countries. His name was Lamar Poulton. He not only fed us, made sure we had a place to stay, but even tried to give us money when my shoes melted against the heater in my room. I never forgot the kindness of the Poulton's.

Years later, my husband and I stopped to visit a friend in Tremonton. While we were there, the doorbell rang and nicely dressed man came to the door. They visited for a few minutes, and as the man was leaving the friend introduced the man as his insurance agent, Lamar Poulton. I hadn't recognized him, but the name sent shivers through my body as the memory of how much he'd helped me flooded my mind. I quickly asked if he'd been a mission president in Scotland and he said he had been. I relayed the incident to him that had meant so much to me and he only had a vague memory of the three weary travelers. I never saw him again and have no idea if he and his wife are alive thirty-five years later.

This is just one time when someone who had nothing to gain from me helped me. I hope that I have been that kind of person to some stranger in their journey.